Oh Henri!

07.20.18

THE MOTTO TO WHICH PHOTOGRAPHER HENRI CARTIER-BRESSON IS FOREVER LINKED—that of “The Decisive Moment”—seems near to an assertion of the primacy of the still image’s power over that of the moving, of the single absolutely right frame over hundreds of approximate ones, suspended tension and mystery over unfurling drama. The phrase provides the title to an exhibition of Cartier-Bresson’s photographs currently on display at the International Center for Photography, now accompanied by a program of moving image work produced by or dedicated to the photographer at Anthology Film Archives. In a lecture accompanying the opening of the ICP exhibition, Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson artistic director Agnès Sire interrogated the myth of “The Decisive Moment”—which was hung onto his 1952 collection Images a la Sauvette for an English-language publication, and has stuck around ever since, though a nearer translation is “Images on the Run.”

To move away from the idea of a single “Decisive” Cartier-Bresson is to move away from a decided Cartier-Bresson, so to return the reflex and spontaneity to this life’s work caught on the fly—and here the seven programs that make up Anthology’s “Henri Cartier-Bresson in Motion” are key in expanding the established view of the artist. In point of fact the ability to produce compelling still and moving images are discreet skill sets, and possession of one is far from a guarantor of excelling at another. Directors Abbas Kiarostami and Wim Wenders both make the grade as still shooters, while only a few photographers make filmmakers of the first rate—offhand I can think of Larry Clark, Raymond Depardon and, on the basis of the incomplete Stranded in Canton, William Eggleston, while the less well-established teenaged Look magazine contributor Stanley Kubrick, his photographic work now the subject of an ongoing exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York, went on to do fairly well for himself in motion pictures.

Cartier-Bresson, born in 1908, is a figure that looms as large in twentieth century photography as Kubrick does in cinema, but he was always a multihyphenate by nature—oil painting was his first love, and towards the end of his very, very long life he had returned to working primarily in a sketchpad—and there was a time when he might very well have been lost to the lure of movies. Traveling to New York in 1935 for an exhibition, then still going by the name Henri Cartier, his interest in moving pictures was stirred when he became friendly with the photographer and filmmaker Paul Strand, a habitué of the modernist redoubt that was Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen’s 291 art gallery, best known in avant-garde cinema circles for his silent city symphony Manhatta (1921), codirected with painter/photographer Charles Sheeler.

At the time that Cartier-Bresson came to know him, Strand was leading the leftist filmmaking cooperative Nykino and serving as one of several cinematographers contributing material to Pare Lorentz’s The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936), a short underwritten by the New Deal-era U.S. Resettlement Administration that illustrates the manner in which short-sighted agricultural practices had led to the ecological catastrophe of the Dust Bowl. Returning to France, Cartier-Bresson became an assistant to Jean Renoir, then at the height of his prewar prestige, working alongside Jacques Becker—incidentally, the subject of a retrospective at the reopened Film Forum beginning on August 1—and Luchino Visconti. Anthology plays two of the three Renoir films that Cartier-Bresson worked on, missing only The Rules of the Game (1939), in which he appears as a servant. He pops up as well in the miraculous A Day in the Country, shot in 1936 but only released in a semi-complete form a decade later, donning a seminarian’s cassock alongside Becker and author Georges Bataille.

Jean Renoir, La vie est à nous, 1936, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 66 minutes.


A dulcet riverbank reverie set in the previous century, A Day in the Country is one of Renoir’s loveliest and most altogether lovable films, though the direction in which Cartier-Bresson would head as a fledgling filmmaker is better indicated by La vie est à nous (1936), a propagandistic effort paid for by the French Communist Party and produced by Frontier Films, an organization evolved from Nykino. In the New Deal America that Cartier-Bresson had so recently left, as in the France to which he returned, governed by the left-wing coalition of the Front populaire, it seemed to many a shirking of duty in the face of impending crisis not to produce art in service of political imperatives, which La vie est à nous does in the form of leveling a j’accuse at the two hundred leading French families which it holds responsible for the suffering of the working class and the incipient rise of fascism.

Renoir would effectively disavow La vie est à nous in later years, leading a project that to all appearances he had been intimately involved with to be redesignated as a collective undertaking, and his “fellow traveler” period barely even lasted out the 1930s—as noted in Pascal Mérigeau’s superlative biography of the great filmmaker, Renoir was a natural-born people-pleaser whose commitments went whichever way the wind was blowing, and made no bones about expressing his fondness for Benito Mussolini while preparing to direct Tosca in Fascist Italy in 1940. Cartier-Bresson, however, remained true to the international left, and the next decade would find him completely immersed in the struggle for Europe, an immersion reflected in his cinematic output.

Henri Cartier-Bresson and Herbert Kline, Victoir de la vie (Return to life), 1937, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 47 minutes.


Victoire de la vie (Return to Life, 1937), L’Espagne vivra (Spain Will Live, 1938), and the recently rediscovered With the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in Spain (1937–38) are all the result of boots-on-the-ground work on the shell-shocked Iberian Peninsula, documents of the suffering of a besieged Madrid and flooded field hospitals from the front lines of the fight between the Spanish Republican Army and the German-Italian allied Nationalists led by Francisco Franco. Lambasting the French-British Non-Intervention Agreement of 1936 as short-sighted and suicidal for the European democracies—the scornful image of a brolly-toting Neville Chamberlain recurs—Victoire de la vie and L’Espagne vivra petition the French public for financial contributions to contribute the war effort and to provide relief to a beleaguered civilian populace. The tone in L’Espagne vivre is relentlessly positive, crowing over the victory at the Battle of Guadalajara and emphasizing the unflagging support of the native Spanish peasants for the Republican cause—as opposed to the Nationalist reliance on Fascist armaments and “Moorish” foot-soldiers imported from Morocco as if to, per the commentary written by film historian Georges Sadoul, to roll back the Reconquista. This brio is touching, while from a vantage point eighty years down the line, the images tell a very different story, as the threadbare, under-equipped Republican units drilling for the front appear doomed, doomed, doomed.

The tone has shifted from resolution to weary acceptance in Cartier-Bresson’s next film work, Le Retour (The Return, 1945), a document of the bedraggled survivors of Nazi prison camps and forced labor emerging from captivity to limp homewards. Working at the behest of the U.S. Army Signal Corps, Cartier-Bresson captures the DDT disinfections at D.P. (Displaced Persons) camps and the trudging mass movement across pontoon bridges and the weeding out of collaborationists and a panorama of the whole miserable toll of the war as etched in individual human faces. It’s Cartier-Bresson’s greatest contribution to cinema, invested with the heft of his lived experience—captured during the Battle of France, he’d spent almost three years in a P.O.W. camp before finally escaping after two failed attempts.

This experience, among others, is touched on in Heinz Bütler’s Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Impassioned Eye, a 2003 documentary made in the lead-up to a retrospective at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, which finds the photographer a still lucid and engaging subject at the end of his days. Among the assembled talking heads are several members of the Magnum Photos cooperative, cofounded by Cartier-Bresson in 1947, as well as admirers including Isabelle Huppert and Arthur Miller, who of the photographer’s American excursions comments that the U.S. “is a place of great extremes, and if you choose to look at the extremes it can be very tragic.”

Cartier-Bresson does exactly that in the certifiable discoveries of Anthology’s series, California Impressions (1970) and Southern Exposures (1971), two documentaries made for CBS News shot respectively in the Golden State and Mississippi, remarkable not only for putting the now-internationally-celebrated photographer back behind a film camera viewfinder, but for encouraging him to work in color. They are not groundbreaking as films—essentially composed as string of vignettes that follow one after another, Cartier-Bresson doesn’t experiment much with form beyond letting the audio from one scene bleed into the one preceding—but captivating as reportages from a country still vibrating with the shockwaves of the 1960s, driven to spiritual questing. (Seen back to back, they suggest parallels between squalling Esalen Institute therapy and speaking-in-tongues back country tent revivals.)

Differentiating his two lens-based disciplines to a journalist after a Paris screening of Southern Exposures, Cartier-Bresson said, “Photography is sketching, on the other hand, to make a film is to make a speech.” While Cartier-Bresson, to use his metaphor, was more of a sketch artist than a raconteur, the sideline in movies he pursued through his peripatetic life resulted in a body of work offering up fresh questions about the relationship between politics and aesthetics, cinema and photography, and the decisive and the indefinite in art.

Nick Pinkerton

“Henri Cartier-Bresson in Motion” runs from July 20 through July 26 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.

THE TIME TO DO THE RIGHT THING is now or never. The urgency coursing through Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You makes it a perfect movie for the blazing summer of resistance. When Riley’s debut feature played in Sundance in January, it seemed like African-American lysergic futurism. Six months later, even its most surreal moments are less prophetic than terrifyingly close to ordinary life in 2018—maybe with the exception of the human/horse gene-editing thing.

What Riley brings to his first feature film is twenty-seven years of making music as the leader of the Oakland political hip-hop collective The Coup and an even longer stint as a labor organizer. At fifteen, he joined the Progressive Labor Party, then focused on Central California farm workers—hardly the coolest or most glamourous place for a black teenage leftist to define his political identity. With The Coup and now in Sorry to Bother You, Riley homes in on the struggle of workers against unchecked predatory capitalism. The movie is a hilariously unhinged satire, without—and this is the extraordinary part—even a hint of didacticism. Riley doesn’t lecture, he pulls you in by entertaining you—persuasively. Jordan Peele’s revelatory Get Out (2017) framed an African-American’s distrust of his own subjectivity—are they going to destroy me, body and soul, or is that just paranoia?—within the conventions of the gas-lit horror film. Riley does something more daring by mixing and matching genres and sometimes ignoring their constraints altogether. Unlike many of my fellow critics, I don’t think the film goes off the rails toward the end, although I think the very last shot is mistimed. You need a few more seconds after the shock of the image (the movie’s punchline) to keep looking at it head-on. But that’s such a minor flaw I probably shouldn’t have brought it up. Because what’s great about Riley’s filmmaking is that he channels the process and aesthetic of a rap-poet into a medium that is resistant, by virtue of its technology, to improvisation and the associative immediacy of the poetic imagination. And Riley’s trippy visual and verbal stream of consciousness is always grounded in the politics of speaking truth to power. Here the message is organize, unionize, walk the picket line and strike, strike, strike. Shut It Down!

Our everyman is Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield), a little bit hapless and vaguely guilt-ridden. He lives in his uncle’s garage with his girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson), a performance artist and a member of Left Eye, a secret revolutionary cell. She also has a part-time gig as a sign-twirler for local businesses. This is Oakland and it’s gentrifying pretty fast. Cassius does nothing much until the threat of the bank foreclosing on his uncle’s house makes him take the only job he can get—cold-calling, on commission, at Regal View Telemarketing. His initial “Sorry-to-bother-you” forays into strangers’ living rooms are failures. (Riley literalizes the process by flying Cassius and his desk into the middle of the homes he’s invaded by phone.) But when he takes the advice of the distinguished elder in the neighboring cubicle (Danny Glover) to channel his inner white voice, his luck turns 180 degrees. Provided by an unseen David Cross, Cassius’s white voice sounds like Elmer Fudd, adding a specifically cartoon element to a mise-en-scène that’s already intentionally flat and riotously colored.

Just as Cassius half-heartedly agrees to join his fellow workers in a walk-out, led by a union organizer (Steven Yeun) who has eyes for Detroit, his white-voice talent comes to the attention of management and he’s promoted to “super-caller,” with a luxurious office and a paycheck that’s more than enough to pay off his uncle’s debts and to rent an apartment for himself in a glass high-rise, which leaves Detroit unimpressed. Because while Left Eye is attempting to expose the slave-labor practice of “Worry Free” (the corporate force of darkness that’s been churning in the background of the movie), Cassius is telemarketing Worry Free’s indentured servitude franchises around the world. And if you think that could never happen in America, well, Wisconsin, at the expense of its taxpayers, has just handed the Taiwan-based FoxConn Technology Group (you couldn’t make up a name like that), on whose practices Worry Free is based, $4.8 billion to build a manufacturing complex in the state. And the Supremes, in a five to four decision, have just done a number on public-service unions.

The rest of the plot is best left as a surprise. Sorry to Bother You is smart, outrageously funny, deadly serious, buoyantly acted, and it moves to a hip-hop score by The Coup, Merrill Garbus, Riley, and Tune-Yards. In less dire times, I would have dubbed Riley’s vision phantasmagoric, but that would be to ignore the world we wake to every day. See the movie, buy the album, laugh, cry, yell at the screen, but above all get out and organize.

Amy Taubin

Sorry to Bother You is now playing in select theaters.

ONCE THE BLAZING FURNACE OF THE NORTH OF ENGLAND, Sheffield’s steel mills had for the most part gone cold by the 1980s. It was around this moment of postindustrial bottoming out that the city was reinvented, via much public money, as a haven for the arts, one outgrowth of this being the founding of the nonfiction Sheffield Doc/Fest in 1994. Through the course of the quarter-century since, the reputation of Doc/Fest—the largest festival of its kind in England and one of the largest in the world—has waxed and waned, as festival reputations tend to do, though this year was held up for particular scrutiny, marking the arrival of new Director of Film Programming Luke Moody, formerly of the BRITDOC Foundation.

This was my first trip to Sheffield, and so I cannot positively say if the estimable Mr. Moody’s arrival has changed the culture of the festival or if the culture of the festival needed changing in the first place, but I can report that some remarkable movies passed through South Yorkshire in the course of six days. Some, while new to UK audiences, had been traveling awhile on the festival circuit: RaMell Ross’s Hale County This Morning, This Evening accumulated so much advance praise since its Sundance premiere that one couldn’t help but be a little wary—a mistrust that the movie dispels within minutes with its serene, utterly sui generis approach. The material that makes up the film was accumulated during the period that Ross, a onetime pro-basketball hopeful turned photographer, was coaching and teaching in largely African-American Greensboro, Alabama.

Two young men, incoming Selma University student Daniel and expectant young father Quincy, emerge as something like the film’s principal characters, while Ross himself plays a vital offscreen role, an accepted oddity around town as a northerner and as a black man with a movie camera. Ross has an eye for off-kilter compositions that creates recurring experiences of disorientation and discovery, seemingly having absorbed and internalized William Eggleston’s dictum “I am at war with the obvious,” but what he’s made is a distinctly cinematic endeavor, not a portfolio that happens to be made with moving pictures. Hale County comes with some prestigious cosigners—the ubiquitous Laura Poitras has a producer credit and Apichatpong Weerasethakul is listed as “creative advisor”—but the movie belongs entirely, undeniably to Ross. It’s a beautiful film, yes, but also a gutty, startlingly confident one, full of tonal shifts and seemingly counterintuitive decisions—downright goofy intertitles, a sudden interpolation of racially-charged archival footage—on the way to a closing image of everyday fortitude: endless drills on the basketball court. The movie has a deceptively offhand manner, but nothing in it is left to chance—those drills, for example, echo an earlier extended sequence of one of Quincy’s toddlers running amok; intricate internal image-rhymes abound. Ross, to venture a not-entirely-inappropriate sports metaphor, is like a player continually taking his shots off-balance and from the most disadvantageous angles, and he sinks every one of them.

If only in nonfiction filmmaking, 2018 has thus far been a good—even great—year for the Yanks. Among the other auspicious works by U.S. filmmakers at Sheffield was América, a movie which in fact takes place entirely in Mexico: The title comes from the name of the ninety-three-year-old grandmother at the center of its family drama. Opening in the tourist town of Puerto Vallarta, the movie focuses in on the figure of Diego, a unicyclist, stilt-walker, and all-purpose urban attention-getter. This overture-like opening ends with Diego returning to his hometown of Colima to assist in caring for América, shunted off onto her grandchildren—Diego, the elder Rodrigo, and Bruno, who arrives some ways along in the movie—after their father is jailed for elder abuse. With deceptive ease, codirectors Chase Whiteside and Erick Stoll pass the narrative baton between the brothers, young men sometimes awkwardly and often movingly trying to adapt to the role of caretakers for América, girlishly giddy one moment, seemingly senile the next. Shooting a subject who is perhaps only somewhat cognizant of her participation in a film, Whiteside and Stoll tread an extraordinarily thin line between intimacy and discretion, and in this as in all aspects their film is guided and distinguished by an alert mindfulness, an emotional intelligence determining where the camera needs to be and has the right to be. The evident trust between filmmakers and subjects results in shots that any documentarian would kill for—the brothers, all trained as circus performers, forming a human tower in ascending order of age—and they save the best for last, one of the most devastating codas in recent memory.

Erick Stoll and Chase Whiteside, América, color, sound, 76 minutes.


Uniting the best of the American features was an unusual level of commitment: Hale County is the end product of five years of shooting; América spent three years in gestation; while Bing Liu’s skate park autobiography piece Minding the Gap, another Sundance standout making its UK premiere, mines fully a dozen years of footage shot in the filmmaker’s hometown of Rockford, Illinois—a depressing place to live, from the looks of things, but a great place to carve up the often-empty streets and sidewalks. Its focal characters, united by a passion for skating and by personal acquaintance with domestic violence, are Liu, largely off-camera, and two of his friends since childhood, Keire, a teenager still coping with the death of his abusive father, and Zack, a twentysomething party boy preparing—or rather not preparing—to become a young father. Liu’s film, available on Hulu as of mid-August, captures his friends in both fluidly shot skate video-style action and in earthbound everyday life, landing daredevil tricks with ease while struggling mightily to clear mental hurdles. Liu handles the elliptical passing of time smartly, the braiding of his storylines less so, but if ever there was an instance of the triumph of feeling over technique, this is it.

Aside from the upstart Americans, one found several veteran filmmakers in fine fettle at Sheffield. The Romanian Corneliu Porumboiu, whose last documentary work was 2014’s soccer-themed The Second Game, returns to nonfiction with Infinite Football, a character study of the filmmaker’s friend, Laurențiu Ginghină, a bureaucratic functionary who harbors dreams of perfecting a new set of football rules that will allow for more unimpeded movement of the ball He has made a very glumly-funny film about utopian thinking and its seeming inability to leave well enough alone. Like Whiteside and Stoll, Porumboiu has the benefit of a great subject—while the prolific Ukranian Sergei Loznitsa, in his Victory Day, concerns himself with individual subjects not at all. As in his last nonfiction feature, Austerlitz (2016), a procession of detached, fixed-camera compositions taken among packs of tourists milling about the grounds of the Buchenwald concentration camp, Loznitsa makes the crowd his star.

RaMell Ross, Hale County This Morning, This Evening, 2018, color, sound, 76 minutes.


The crowds in question are gathering to celebrate May 9, the eponymous holiday marking the Red Army’s costly triumph in the Battle of Berlin. You might take the scene to be Russian, for the vast majority of the people that we see here hail from points somewhere in the former USSR, but in fact it is the southeast of Berlin in Treptower Park, home to a Soviet War Memorial erected in 1949, a monumental monstrosity of Stalin-era pomp whose friezes of thick-necked war martyrs are intercut with widescreen groupings of bike gangs, Putin superfans, folk dancers, merry drunks, sullen teenagers, and so forth. A public speaker is seen haranguing passers-by on the subject of the continued presence of the Third Reich in the contemporary world, his warning quite close to what Loznitsa is pursuing here and in Austerlitz, movies that confront twenty-first century Europe with twentieth-century tragedies to which the living links are rapidly disappearing, finding history at once right at hand and separated by an impossible distance.

That our millennium doesn’t lack for catastrophes of its own is a point made abundantly clear in Canadian found-footage sorcerer and cameraless filmmaker Dominic Gagnon’s Going South, a fiercely glittering collection of apocalyptic auguries culled from online deep diving and the second part of a cardinal point tetralogy begun with Of the North (2016). Like Victory Day, Gagnon’s film lacks a single protagonist figure, though certain aspirant YouTube stars recur throughout its runtime—a teenage trans girl addressing her travails to an audience of followers, an alcoholic seen cycling between relapse and recovery, a gentleman explaining the ins and outs of Flat Earth theory, a gold grills expert and proud Trump voter, an expat expert on the Thai sex trade—usually direct-addressing the camera. The common strain between these disparate testimonials is a fervent belief in self-realization and reinvention, but this is troubled through close proximity to a fleet of ill-boding images: a palm tree in flames, a pair of parasailers swept up in gale-force winds, ice caps crumbling into the sea.

As a pungent distillation of the experience of Internet-mediated virtual reality c. 2018, Going South was matched only by Leigh Ledare’s The Task, a maddeningly and hysterical—in both senses of the word—work that began its life as an installation at the Art Institute of Chicago before being programmed by documentary festival True/False in Columbia, Missouri, earlier this year, and then finding a second act as a feature film. Its action confined to a single room, with three days of palaver boiled down to about two hours of screentime, The Task depicts a congregation of men and women from all backgrounds and walks of life intensely engaged in the Tavistock Method of roundtable group discussion. In theory the debate and discourse is meant to reveal something to those collected about group dynamics; in practice, it becomes a forum for scattershot call-outs, the airing of grievances, white knight peacocking, and performative contrition, with individual egos again and again sidetracking the assembly from their common goal, the exact nature of which no one can seem to agree on, along with anything else. The result is as near to a flesh-and-blood enaction of the experience of comments section or social media cacophony as you are likely to find in cinema—a register of horror particular to the digital age, on view in this old steel city.

Nick Pinkerton

The 2018 Sheffield Doc/Fest took place from June 7 to June 12, 2018.

WHENEVER I WATCH Allan Moyle’s teen girl coming-of-age screwball comedy Times Square (1980), I remember the real-life story of Warhol superstar Edie Sedgwick and the radically queer underground filmmaker Barbara Rubin meeting in the psychiatric hospital to which, in the early 1960s, their respective families (Sedgwick’s was Boston Brahmins, Rubin’s middle-class Queens Jews) committed them for drug use. One of Warhol’s most memorable screen presences, Sedgwick died of an overdose in 1971. In 1963, at age seventeen, Rubin made Christmas on Earth—the all-time most subversive American avant-garde film—and became a creative force at the Silver Factory by introducing the Velvet Underground to Warhol (one of many brilliant alliances she instigated). Only a few years later, she embraced Hassidic Judaism, and died after giving birth to her fifth child in 1980 (the year of Times Square’s release). Rubin’s work has received a second life thanks to its discovery by contemporary genderqueer artists and because her long strange trip is documented in Chuck Smith’s Barbara Rubin & the Exploding NY Underground (2018), now on the festival circuit.

Christmas on Earth did not make the cut for the Quad’s “The New York Woman” series, although the delirious, semi-musical Times Square, about two runaways differently in love, did and should not be missed. (Unavailable except on used foreign-region DVDs, it’s showing in 35 mm this Sunday at 8:25 PM.) Perhaps the close-up of a vagina, against which the action throughout the film is superimposed, didn’t meet the series’s primary requirement—that the central “character” be a woman—although the film fits the other two conditions, of being made in the twentieth century and at least partly on location in New York City. Those looking outside the mainstream narrative box might content themselves with Warhol’s Poor Little Rich Girl (1965), a sixty-six-minute Sedgwick portrait, which poses the question of whether more is revealed when its subject is in focus than when it’s not. Since Sedgwick is the only person on-screen, the film fails the Bechdel test—that a movie has two female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man—but almost all the other forty-eight films in the series pass it with flying colors. This includes some outré entries: Rosa von Praunheim’s Survival in New York (1989), in which adventurous German expats Ulli, Claudia, and Anna get lost in in the Big Apple; Von Praunheim’s other entry, Tally Brown, New York (1979), a portrait of the cabaret and opera singer at work and cutting loose with friends Holly Woodlawn and Divine; and Chantal Akerman’s mother-daughter discursive and pictorial masterpiece, News from Home (1977).

The focus of the series, however, is theatrically released narratives of every genre, ranging in time from Allan Dwan’s 1924 silent clothes-conscious comedy Manhandled, starring Gloria Swanson, to Whit Stillman’s 1998 The Last Days of Disco, nominally set in the early 1980s publishing world and starring Chloë Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale. Even if you’ve seen many of the films more than once, they might change on you today because of the volatility of the discussion around the representation of gender, sex, love, and power. Regardless of your feelings about Roman Polanski, Rosemary’s Baby (1968) is a spot-on feminist horror film about a woman whose pregnant body becomes a pawn in other people’s struggle for power. George Cukor’s It Should Happen to You (1954), a satire on New York as a magnet for empty fame, is also an ode to the honesty and generosity of Judy Holliday (the actor and the character she plays), and Cukor’s tough-ass coded gender comedy Girls About Town (1931) is always a pleasure. On the other hand, the condescension and mansplaining that made me loathe Frank Perry’s Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970) and Paul Mazursky’s An Unmarried Woman (1978) when they were first released are just as noxious today.

Richard Brooks, Looking for Mr. Goodbar, 1977, 35mm, color, sound, 136 minutes.


John Cassavetes’s Gloria (1980) showcases Gena Rowlands (the director’s wife) in––for both of them––a rare foray into crime melodrama. Rowlands’s character, a former gangster’s moll, goes on the run with a young boy whose mother is a victim of mob violence. If Gloria presents an inspiring, streetwise heroine, Jack Garfein’s Something Wild (1961), which stars Garfein’s wife Carroll Baker as a suicidal rape victim, reflects the opposite pole of what method-trained New York directors viewed as juicy roles for actresses. Baker deserved better, but Garfein’s vision was more in line with the fantasies about women that for decades dominated New York’s serious theater and movie creative endeavors, compared to than that of Cassavetes.

High on the list of any woman’s cautionary tales are Richard Brooks’s Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977) and The Best of Everything (1959). The former is a fairly typical women-who-want-sex-wind-up-dead reaction to feminist independence. The latter, based on Rona Jaffe’s bestseller and directed by Jean Negulesco, now looks like a corollary to Mad Men and should be a study object for the #MeToo movement. Set in a semi-schlock publishing house where the female secretaries and fledgling editors have no choice but to submit to daily ass-pinching and occasional rape attempts by male executives (the abuse outside the office is even worse), it depicts the female characters as so hungry for love and marriage that they refuse to see the truth—that most of the men who pursue them lie to their faces and, when confronted, blame the women for believing them. I saw the film at an impressionable age, and embarrassing as it is to say, it warped choices I made for far too long.

Eleven of the fifty films in this series are by women directors. I’d like to tell you that you can’t go wrong with any of them, but that’s not the case. Therefore, here is my list of must-sees, in alphabetical order: Kathryn Bigelow’s Blue Steel (1990); Darnell Martin’s I Like It Like That (1994); Leslie Harris’s Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. (1992); and Bette Gordon’s Variety (1983). And, of course, the aforementioned News from Home.

Amy Taubin

“The New York Woman” opened on June 29 and runs through July 19 at Quad Cinema in New York.

Girl Power

06.21.18

A TERRIFIC PREVIEW of the summer’s hot independent movies and a place to make discoveries, this year’s BAMcinemaFest is one of the best in the series’s ten-year history. The films show only once, with the directors doing a Q&A after each screening. The sold-out opening night has Boots Riley presenting his debut feature, the dark, delirious Sorry to Bother You, which at Sundance seemed like Black Futurism but six months later is more like a prophecy fulfilled—maybe not today, but probably tomorrow. The visuals are as eyeball-rattling as a comic strip; the soundtrack by Tune-Yards and Riley’s Oakland hip-hop group, the Coup, is dense and driving. In the midst of the chaos, Lakeith Stanfield plays a character who is perpetually uneasy with the choices he makes, thereby becoming the guilty Everyman of the moment.

Independent film veterans Gus Van Sant and Andrew Bujalski are bringing their most mainstream films ever, both scheduled to open later this summer. Bujalski’s Support the Girls is set in a Houston sports bar that’s like an indie version of Hooters—smaller and more personal. Regina Hall plays a harried manager devoted to the well-being of both staff and customers at considerable cost to her own. Like Hall’s character, Bujalski sees to it that his largely female cast is never exploited and that the customers, on-screen and in the audience, keep in line and still have a good time. With one Ivanka-like exception, the film really does support the “girls.” Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot is Van Sant’s tribute to the legendary, irascible Portland cartoonist John Callahan (Joaquin Phoenix), who at age twenty-one was paralyzed from the waist down after a car accident. He wasn’t driving, but he was as drunk as his friend behind the wheel. Callahan continued to drink until he hit bottom, went to AA, and found an extraordinary sponsor (Jonah Hill), who in the film is as much an inspirational figure as Callahan later becomes. Like Van Sant’s Milk (2008), Don’t Worry pays tribute to those who transform their own lives by supporting others.

Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace and Josephine Decker’s Madeline’s Madeline have already found a following on the international festival circuit. In the former, a young woman (Thomasin McKenzie) tries to help her war-traumatized father (Ben Foster) reenter society. Granik gets strong performances from everyone in the film, including the supporting actors who play members of a self-sustaining community living off the grid in the Oregon wilderness. Leave No Trace is solid, if laboriously picturesque, realist filmmaking.

Madeline’s Madeline comes at the child/parent relationship from a radically different dimension—that of psychodrama. Teenage Madeline, a talented aspiring performer (as is Helena Howard, the disarmingly honest actor who portrays her), has fallen under the spell of a garden-variety psychologically manipulative experimental theater director (Molly Parker). Madeline’s mom (Miranda July) is worried that her impulsive, imaginative daughter is in danger. This does not prevent her from eventually taking the opportunity offered by the director to steal the spotlight from Madeline, thus freeing her daughter to act out her memory of the violent confrontation she had with her mother years before—the “madeline” coyly referenced in the title. These aren’t spoilers; the narrative is too lame for the term to apply. Did I mention that both the mother and the director (Madeline’s two moms) are treated satirically, while Madeline, who is fetishized by Decker in much the same way as by the director of the theater piece within the movie, walks away from this mess a gloriously free spirit? Madeline’s Madeline is repetitive and politically slippery: Are we meant to congratulate ourselves for raising an eyebrow at the theater director’s blindness to her own racism, or how her touchy-feely, boundary-violating coaching of her cast is blatant sexual abuse? The film is gorgeously shot and edited, especially in the sequences that express Madeline’s inner vision. At those moments, Decker seems inspired by landmark avant-garde films such as Maya Deren’s At Land (1944) and Stan Brakhage’s Scenes from Under Childhood (1967–70). Too bad that such an adventurous filmmaking aesthetic and three wonderful actors are undermined by gimmicky, half-baked storytelling.

Josephine Decker, Madeline's Madeline, 2018, color, sound, 93 minutes.


Despite my reservations about Madeline’s Madeline, the BAMcinemaFest programmers should be applauded for favoring films that refuse conventional three-act narratives. Madeleine Olnek infuses Wild Nights with Emily, her Emily Dickinson biopic, with wry humor. Focusing on Dickinson’s decades-long love affair with her childhood friend and later sister-in-law Susan Gilbert, Wild Nights is funny and touching in its liberation of the poet from the loneliness and depression to which she is condemned in films like Terence Davies’s tone-deaf A Quiet Passion (2016). In Qasim Basir’s A Boy, A Girl, A Dream, a man (Omari Hardwick) and a woman (Meagan Good) meet during the dismal evening of the 2016 election. Immediate attraction grows into life-changing commitment in real time. The film features a single unbroken shot as the characters move through the Los Angeles night. According to Basir, the eighty-nine-minute movie was digitally captured thirteen times, beginning to end, without a break. Whether the various takes were mixed and matched or if the best of the thirteen was chosen was unclear from his remarks. A Boy, A Girl, A Dream is a bit like watching a Warhol talkie but with ingenious camera moves, eye-catching locations, and a focus on ambitious, complex African American characters.

Documentaries, including a few fact-fiction hybrids, make up about 50 percent of the festival lineup, and you can’t go wrong with any of them. Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher’s The Gospel of Eureka is set in Eureka Springs, Arkansas (population just over two thousand), home to the sixty-five-foot granite statue of Christ of the Ozarks as well as an annual outdoor performance of “The Great Passion Play” and Lee Keating and Walter Burrell’s LGBTQ bar, where karaoke night brings out fantastic drag performers who are as likely to lip sync gospel hymns as disco anthems. Partly shot during the ramp-up for what New Yorkers like this writer presumed would be a polarizing vote on “Non-Discrimination Ordinance 2223” (aka the bathroom-choice bill), Palmieri and Mosher amazingly find no visible animosity between winners and losers. With Justin Vivian Bond’s dry-humored narration as an anchor, the filmmakers cut between the exultant performers and audiences of the drag cabaret and the passion play. Certainly, there are hints that Eureka hasn’t always been as tolerant as it is today and that darkness still lurks at the edge of town. But when the disco ball and the Star of Bethlehem are both signs of the divine—some Eureka residents even find God in both of them—it’s hard not to respond with hope to The Gospel of Eureka.

Andrew Bujalski's Support the Girls, 2018, color, sound, 94 minutes.


In Robert Greene’s Bisbee 17, performance is critical to the survival of another small town. Once a copper-mining center, Bisbee, Arizona, was the scene of a mass atrocity in 1917, when the owner of the mines ordered local law enforcement to herd hundreds of striking workers, most of them Native Americans and immigrants from Mexico and Europe, into railroad box cars and dump them in the New Mexico desert, where many died of thirst and hunger. One hundred years later, the mines are gone, and with tourism as the only industry, the more progressive citizens of Bisbee decide to lay aside their Wild West routines and put on a show in which they reenact this murderous deportation. For Greene, whose films focus on the intersection of performance and everyday life, Bisbee in 2017 remains a place of high drama. As the spectacle’s creators and actors delve into the past, they discover that racism is as virulent in Bisbee as it was a century ago.

Skateboarders are the subjects of two fascinating documentaries. Bing Liu’s Minding the Gap is a study of damaged masculinity and the bonds among three skateboarders, one of them the filmmaker, as they are forced to abandon the freedom of adolescence for the burdens of adulthood. In Crystal Moselle’s fiction-documentary hybrid Skate Kitchen, a group of New York teen-girl skateboarders play characters pretty much based on them. Unlike their male rivals for skating territory, who have only a minor presence in the film, the girls bond across gender and racial lines, and their gab sessions are as quicksilver, risk-defying, and free as their movements on their boards. Skate Kitchen’s cinematography is nowhere near as refined as Minding the Gap’s, but then there’s nothing refined about the ways these girls break new ground as they come of age, nor about how they take possession of Manhattan, uptown and downtown.

BAMcinemaFest’s revival movie is Kasi Lemon’s Eve’s Bayou (1997), one of the memorable feminist movies of that decade and never more resonant than it is today. And on the festival’s website is a remembrance of Robin Holland, the great portraitist who died in January. For five years, Holland was the festival’s official photographer. The directors who looked into the lens of her camera are fortunate to be able to see themselves through her eyes.

Amy Taubin

BAMcinemaFest runs through June 30 at the Harvey Theater and the Rose Cinema in Brooklyn.

WE TAKE IT FOR GRANTED—or should, at least—that access to the motion picture apparatus at the highest levels of authority indicates a certain advantage of birthright. If feature fiction filmmakers’ publicity doesn’t make a point of mentioning that they didn’t grow up more than comfortable, it’s a pretty safe bet that they did. Hollywood nepotism and garden-variety privilege march through top-ranked film schools every year, and then there’s the case of Count don Luchino Visconti Count di Modrone. There aren’t many defectors from the ruling class coming from this high in the ranks; as such, their testimonies are invaluable.

Visconti, the subject of a long-overdue career retrospective at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, was a nobleman by birth, and a member of the Italian Communist Party by choice—though his political commitments had little impact on his lavish lifestyle. From 1277 to 1447, his family ruled Milan, and they still held a goodly chunk of it when he was born there in 1906, raised in an ancestral palazzo in spitting distance of La Scala opera house. The family crest, a crown-bedecked zigzag of a viper swallowing a man usually described as a Moor, can be found everywhere in the city, and you’ve probably seen it around elsewhere, as a design element of the logo for Alfa Romeo.

Young Lucino’s first ambition, befitting a gentleman, was to train and breed racehorses. After winning the Milan Gold Cup at twenty-six, however, he began to cast about looking for more worlds to conquer and landed on cinema, working as an assistant to Jean Renoir after Coco Chanel brokered an introduction between the two. It was Renoir who introduced Visconti to the book that would become the basis for his first feature, James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, adapted in 1943 as Ossessione, with Cain’s love triangle turned deadly material moved from roadside Southern California to rural Italy.

Ossessione, banned by the fascists whose authority the young director challenged with the haughty disdain of a true aristocrat, and its follow-up, La Terra Trema (1948), set in a Sicilian fishing village and cast with nonprofessionals, established Visconti at the vanguard of the emerging Italian Neorealist movement, though his preference for elegantly unfurling sequence shots was at odds with the rough-edged aesthetic of something like Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945). The contemporary, lower-class milieu of those first movies would be left behind with Visconti’s 1954 period piece Senso, a film that indicated the direction of his future work. Set during the Italian-Austrian war of unification in 1866, Senso begins with a scene of Italian nationalist protest during a performance of Verdi’s Il Trovatore—by this time, Visconti had begun his career as a director of opera and stage plays, making a star of Maria Callas and helping to introduce Tennessee Williams, credited with Senso’s English-language dialogues, to Italian theatergoers. No longer pretending to obey the dictates of an external realism in style, Visconti here moved his camera as if it were a conductor’s baton, to the cadence of music and welling emotion, all while employing real, glamorous movie stars: Alida Valli as a miserably married Italian countess and the American Farley Granger as an officer in the Austrian army. (Granger, like Williams, was gay, and Visconti never much troubled to hide his own homosexuality—witness the lip-smacking reveal of star Massimo Girotti in Ossessione.)

The destructive sexual passion in Senso is not so different from that of Ossessione—upper and lower classes are leveled out by horizontal desire—but we are in a different, rarefied milieu here. As a filmmaker, Visconti used the specialized knowledge conferred by his high birth to show something of both the outer forms and inner lives of the class from which he originated, his deliberate and intricate blocking perfectly matched to the formal rituals of the noblesse. On a purely practical level it is, quite literally, difficult to imagine someone without Visconti’s connections making his haute monde films. Simply put, he knew the people with the keys to the palazzos.

Luchino Visconti, The Leopard, 1963, 35mm, color, sound, 186 minutes.


Lincoln Center has Visconti’s Neorealist efforts and Senso and other previously restored and revived favorites, including Rocco and His Brothers (1960) and The Leopard (1963). Though, without doubt, the event of this series is the long cut of his Ludwig (1973), an opulent, trance-like biopic of the mad king of Bavaria that has been bowdlerized and truncated from the moment of its completion, playing for a weeklong run on an exquisite 35-mm print in its preferred almost-four-hour version.

Ludwig may be considered a kind of apotheosis for Visconti. It is, for one thing, the last film that he made with his physical faculties intact more or less throughout its production. For all the significant merits of the chamber drama Conversation Piece (1974), Visconti’s reunion with The Leopard star Burt Lancaster, it is a work designed on a diminished scale to suit the diminished capacities of its director, whose chain-smoking and overworking resulted in a debilitating right-hemisphere stroke. (Diminishment of age is among the film’s subjects; per Lancaster’s character: “Old people are strange animals . . . Cross, intolerant, with sudden fears of the solitude they’ve made for themselves, which they then defend as soon as they see threatened.”) It also crystallizes themes that run through his preceding thirty years of filmmaking: the uneasy interplay between personal passions and prescribed duties in individuals, carried on even as the class structures dictating their roles come down around their ears.

In Ludwig, Visconti’s lover and muse Helmut Berger—the star of both his The Damned (1969) and Conversation Piece and recently the subject of Andreas Horvath’s transfixing train wreck of a documentary portrait Helmut Berger, Actor (2015)—plays King Ludwig II from his coronation at age eighteen to his mysterious death at forty, following his being deposed by a cabinet conspiracy and institutionalized, his corpse recovered in shallow water at Lake Starnberg. Here, as ever, Visconti is interested mostly in monarchs and aristocrats on the cusp of obsolescence, the anachronistic state into which he was born—he inherited his title from his playboy father, but much of his money from his mother, an heiress to a pharmaceutical fortune. The rise of modern nationalism alongside industrialization is a historical phenomenon which exerts on Visconti a particular pull. The unification of Italy plays a key role in both Senso and The Leopard, in which the family of the prince of Salina (Lancaster) is divided between Royalist loyalty and the draw of Giuseppe Garibaldi’s rebel redshirts. Ludwig portrays the waning of the independent Bavarian state under the absentee rule of the royal aesthete, a saturnine homosexual who quenches his desire with sleepover playdates. Looming in the background is the inexorable waxing of Prussian militarism, setting into motion a chain of events that ends with the rise of the Third Reich, as addressed in The Damned.

Luchino Visconti, Ludwig, 1973, 35mm, color, sound, 238 minutes.


We watch Berger’s Ludwig age from a beautiful, idealistic boy into a corpulent paranoiac piled under furs befitting a barbarian chieftain, his ice-blue eyes recessed into dark circles, his teeth like black pearls. Decadence and decay abound in Visconti’s films of the etiolated upper castes, whose members are seen draining into ghostly half-life well in advance of their actual physical demise. In her review of The Leopard, Pauline Kael described Lancaster and his retinue coated with road dust: “Seated in the Salina family pews, they’re like corpses––petrified, dead-wood figures.” In Death in Venice (1971)—part of, with The Damned and Ludwig, Visconti’s “German Trilogy”—Dirk Bogarde’s vacationing Gustav von Aschenbach, sick with desire for a beautiful Polish boy, makes himself quite literally sick, staying on through a cholera outbreak to primp and curl and paint himself for a fantasy courtship, fever sweat turning his age-concealing makeup into a hideous, garish mask of counterfeited youth.

Visconti, in adapting Thomas Mann’s short novel, changed the central character from a writer to composer, turning out a film awash in the music of Mahler that, nevertheless, inevitably evokes Richard Wagner’s last days in Venice—with its languorous, lulling pacing, the movie suggests the title of Franz Liszt’s eulogy for his fellow composer, “The Lugubrious Gondola.” Wagner seems to have been much on Visconti’s mind during this time. He appears, played by Trevor Howard, as a pivotal character in Ludwig, a beneficiary, as he was in life, of the munificence of the king; the Italian title of The Damned translates from the German Götterdämmerung as “twilight of the gods,” a phrase inextricable from Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen cycle. One suspects that Visconti saw in cinema the medium best suited to the Wagnerian project of Gesamtkunstwerk, a single art that encompasses all others—a similar preoccupation of the Englishman Michael Powell’s. In Ludwig, Visconti might be undertaking something of a double self-portrait: Ludwig the patron/soft touch sucker, and Wagner the artist/opportunist.

Proletarian allegiances aside, Visconti was not known to be a particularly fraternal fellow—in playing The Leopard’s prince, Lancaster famously studied and imitated the aloof, straight-backed comportment of his director. Ludwig has none of the prince’s ineradicable dignity, though he does have his own sense of style. Inviting an actor he fancies to his Linderhof Palace, Ludwig makes an entrance in the indoor Grotto of Venus, a simulacra of Capri’s Grotta Azzurra equipped with an artificial waterfall, live swans, and a cockleshell boat, on which he appears in full regalia.

Here, as in Bogarde’s sweat-streaked final moments in Venice, Visconti courts camp grotesquerie. Yet Ludwig is not only absurd but touching—and certainly more harmless than the forces who work to dethrone him. Seeing him removed from these fantastic environs to putter around a somber chamber fit for a bachelor bourgeois Victorian bank clerk, one almost wants to cry, as Marlene Dietrich is said to have done after a Paris screening of Jean Cocteau’s La belle et la bête (1946): “Where is my beautiful Beast?” So long as this revival is underway, however, there will be a menagerie on display.

Nick Pinkerton

“Visconti: A Retrospective” runs from June 8 to June 29 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York.